Modern Library Revue: #97 The Sheltering Sky

April 20, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 6 4 min read

coverIn college, for me as for many people, it was psychologically impossible to start anything earlier than several hours before the deadline. The most terrifying papers were the ones for which you were supposed to meet periodically with your professor, revise, talk more, and write again, proving on a regular basis that you had given more than one day’s thought to the assignment. At one point, scrambling to think of a topic for the final project in a fairly open-ended seminar class, I searched for novels I had read that would provide ample fodder when I actually sat down to write a paper. Recalling The Sheltering Sky, and recalling that it involves white people traveling in the desert and confronting The Other and having sex, I thought, “This will be so easy. I will write about The Sheltering Sky and Orientalism.”

My god, what a terrible mistake. To be sure, the main problem was that I had a ham-fisted grasp of the concepts involved to begin with, and that I was a lazy, and subsequently a frantic student. But this novel – this novel is absolutely the wrong choice if you are hoping to plop it down next to Edward Said and make a point about one or the other. Or to answer one with the other, I should say. Every time I had picked up one thread from The Sheltering Sky and typed out a couple of sad little paragraphs, I realized before long that I had toddled directly into a wall. It was if Paul Bowles sat in front of me wearing a Fez, and in between hits from the bong he rasped, “Did you think you could find something in this book that I didn’t think of first?,” but in Arabic. The paper, which ended up being a series of block quotes from Bowles and Said with very few words in between, got a lukewarm reception.

If you are not familiar with this novel, you might not understand how alluring it would be to someone who is looking for that obvious meaty stuff on which last-minute college papers feed. Consider this: Port and Kit Moresby are rich, not particularly likable American travelers (not tourists, we are told early on). World War II has just finished. They go to an unnamed country in North Africa with their good-looking friend Tunner. Kit is neurotic and worries about omens all of the time, and she and her husband have not had sex in at least a year, but they are sort of friendly with one another. Port has sex with a young North African woman in a tent. Kit has sex with Tunner in a train. They meet the Lyles, the most awful people in literature, who are supposed to be mother and son, but they have sex with each other. They all go deeper into the desert. The French official they meet in a desert outpost is married, but he has sex with lots of local girls. Port plots a reconciliation with Kit and sends Tunner away. Port gets typhoid and he and Kit are stranded in a French barracks. Port dies. Kit for whatever reason runs off and falls in with a camel caravan of traders. Two of the traders rape her, she becomes very attached to one of them, he ensconces her in his home, and her mind is basically lost. It just gets weirder and weirder. If you are looking for meaning and symbols, and examples of questionable attitudes, it’s the literary version of Ikea. It’s vaguely foreign and enormous and so filled with things that it’s difficult to know where to start. Most of the stuff is packed up into a box and requires assembly. You aren’t sure if the stuff is well-made, but it looks really nice when it’s put together. You leave with more than you were hoping to. And so on.

I don’t usually read with my guard up, waiting to be offended, but this novel has so much provocative material, especially by the time it has gotten to Kit and Belqassim (her Stockholm Syndrome lover), that it is hard not to. I really like the book, even though it’s miserable; I like the sparse but not too sparse writing and the whole thing gives me the mostly agreeable willies. But it’s the kind of book which makes me wonder if my enjoyment is founded upon my being some kind of asshole. Obviously this dynamic is always a part of the author/reader relationship, but I don’t really think about it unless the book is very obviously engaging with a lot of sticky wickets. That said, I was flummoxed to locate any throw-away titillation on Bowles’s part. He doesn’t pointlessly describe a sexy blind Arab girl; he writes about Port seeing a sexy blind Arab girl and being overcome with lust that is predicated upon her blindness and the creepy way he imagines it will make her helpless to him. Bowles’ focus was on the psychology and the basically solipsistic nature of his main characters, and he seems to have thought it through pretty well; whether or not they are fair or accurate representations of anyone’s psychology, I can’t say. In college, remembering the basic plot points, I thought it would be easy to reread The Sheltering Sky and write a paper saying, “This book is Othering because Africa kills the white man and has sex with the white lady and that’s supposed to be scary.” But I don’t think this novel is like that. It’s a horror story, but the horror is that everyone in the story is sort of horrible. If Port and Kit were different people, North Africa would be a different place. At least that’s what I finally came away with.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. A wonderfully apt review — really captures so much of what I found odd and intriguing and frustrating about the novel.

    I think I enjoyed it less, and was spared the worry about being an asshole, though it incited a deep paranoia that everyone else must secretly be an asshole and probably was enjoying it.

    I'm less sure about the idea that it depends on Port and Kit, though I hope you're right. I had an uneasy feeling that there was a "heart of darkness" style undertone that, if true, would be silly, and tired and, more importantly, offensive: that these nice well to do white people were encountering in Africa their savage true selves, with all the silly liberation of the repressed anticipating-the-sixties nonsense that implies.

  2. I saw the movie yesterday and wanted to turn it off after about the first 90 minutes — but needed to find out how it all ended — needless to say, I was not prepared for the unusual ending — especially Kit taking up with a man on the caravan……..and so here it is 2 AM and not being able to sleep and decided to see what more I could find out about the book and original plot — and boy oh boy! am I surprised and grateful to the author of this article for cluing me in on the story!

    I felt while watching the movie that Bertolucci must have screwed up the original plot — but thankfully he toned it down — especially the mother and son characters………

    It would seem in retrospect that Kit couldn’t live with or without her husband Port………and then lost her mind after his death………..

    In any event, I thank the author for her well written article about the book and plot details — I doubt I could have gotten through the novel.

    Herb W.

  3. I saw the movie twenty some years ago and thought it pretentious and lacking if not beautifully filmed.
    For some reason, unplanned, I read the novel this week. I liked it so much more and don’t quite understand why it is difficult to get.
    The movie does film scenes that are only implied in the book, such as violence and sex, while the book explains the internal world of the characters which does not a all come through in the movie, making it, as usual, a lesser work of art.
    The book , however, is excellent if one is able to infer meaning from sparse but concise writing.
    Perhaps the nature of Kit, a depressive and neurotic, is not reinforced enough to have the reader follow her denial,unraveling and renewal, which is the core of the story.

  4. I just read the book for the first time — didn’t know there was a movie. The book left me with feelings of vagueness…. I had this urge to be back in school, where a professor might make me grapple with questions about the symbolism and themes of the book, but would eventually reveal them and put me out of my misery.

    So I went to Google, and wound up here. You didn’t answer my questions, exactly, but I found your review deeply satisfying, and it validated so many of my feelings. Thank you.

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